Project Management

Use color coding to quickly show overall project health


The purpose of a project status report is to manage expectations by commenting on any and all items that show a variance from your project baselines and stakeholder expectations. Typical status reports not only describe accomplishments against the assigned activities, but they also comment on work that is behind schedule, problems that are being dealt with, major scope change requests, newly identified risks and other observations that will be useful to the reader.

Status reports need to be presented in a manner that is appropriate for the target audience. In some organizations, status reports are circulated to all of the executive management team as well.

At one company I worked for, the IT Director of Development received a large binder each month with a copy of the status reports of each project. The technique was terribly inefficient since it provided much more information than this Director could understand and absorb.

Many organizations have found a solution to the need to provide the right level of information to managers and executives through color-coding. Here are some ways to use colors in your status reports that makes the relevant information stand out:

  • Green -- Everything is fine, on track and in control.
  • Red -- The project is in the ditch and will not meet its commitments for cost, schedule or scope. Projects in the red will need their budget and schedule increased, or their scope of work increased, to get back on track.
  • Yellow -- All other projects. In other words, your project is not totally on track and in control, but it is not in the ditch yet. This definition for green, yellow, red indicators could leave a high percentage of projects in the yellow.

If a project is in a yellow or red state, you should add additional comments that show the cause of the problem and what's being done to correct it. The report should note if the situation needs management intervention.

Each project manager should report on overall project heath using the color coded indicator. The status reports are circulated to an organizational entity like a Project Management Office (PMO) which tracks each project as one line on a report. Each month, the appropriate high-level information is updated for each project and the status indicator is updated as well. This high-level report of one line per project is circulated to the executive team. The executive team can then focus on projects of interest to them, those that have an indicator of red, and also those that have just moved from green to yellow. If your reporting is a little more sophisticated, you could hyperlink each detailed status report into this overall summary report so that executives can click on the projects they are interested in to read the detailed status report.

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